- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced Monday that the Army plans to add an additional 22,000 troops to its ranks, growing to 569,000 soldiers. The force will be the largest it has been since the 572,000 in 1993, during the post-Cold War reduction in force, but far below the 1.57 million soldiers under arms in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Gates noted the escalating violence in Afghanistan as one reason for the increase. Most media commentary has focused on this linkage, with shades of Johnson-era troop increases to prosecute the conflict in Vietnam. Reports of recent combat deaths in Afghanistan seemed to punctuate the need for more troops, which reinforces the story line that the United States might be getting bogged down in another quagmire. But the linkage is indirect at best.

The planned troop increase has much more to do with the number of men and women who have been wounded than with those who have been killed. In times of war, the wounded always outnumber the dead, and many wounded warriors stay on active duty while they are recovering and sometimes afterward. The number of support personnel taking care of the wounded also has increased. This creates a large number of active-duty soldiers, perhaps 10,000, who are not deployable, thus decreasing the size of the force that can be sent overseas. The planned increase will help offset this development and relieve some of the stress on the force.

The increase is also needed because more people want to stay in the Army. The Army already has met its re-enlistment goals for the fiscal year and is limiting re-enlistment options for some soldiers. This means veteran troops who want to remain in the force are being turned away. When these soldiers return to civilian life, the active force loses the investment it made in their training and, more important, the practical experience they gained overseas. Being able to retain more of these seasoned troops will save money and no doubt save lives.

Over the past few years, re-enlistment rates have been highest among deployed troops, a fact that might seem puzzling to those who think service members who go overseas would be the ones most likely to want to get out. But the country has been at war for almost eight years, and the men and women who volunteer know what they are getting into. According to the most recent Army New Recruit Survey, 43.8 percent say that serving their country was their most important reason for enlisting. Learning skills and training attracted 19.7 percent; 16.9 percent sought adventure; and 8.3 percent said they wanted money for education.

The camaraderie and esprit of the troops who deploy are naturally higher than of those who do not go overseas, which helps explain why the deployed are more likely to “re-up.” Deployed troops scheduled to return home before Oct. 31 are exempt from the re-enlistment limits. There is no doubt that the current economic climate also plays a role in retention. It says something about our times when going to war is a more attractive option than staying home and looking for a job.